UPDATE 1-EU targets 20 billion euro investment in AI to catch up with US, Asia

(Changes headline, lead, adds IBM comment)

BRUSSELS, April 25 (Reuters) - The European Union is targeting 20 billion euros ($24.36 billion) of investment in artificial intelligence by 2020 to catch up with Asia and the United States, which are each investing at least three times more than Europe.

Artificial intelligence promises to revolutionise sectors from healthcare to transport to agriculture and Europe is keen not to be left behind in the digital race.

The Commission, the EU executive, will boost its investment in artificial intelligence by about 70 percent to 1.5 billion euros ($1.83 billion). It wants total private and public investment in AI to reach at least 20 billion euros by the end of 2020 to ensure the bloc retains competitiveness and does not face a brain drain.

In 2016 European private investments in AI totalled around 2.4-3.2 billion euros, compared to Asia’s almost 10 billion euros and America’s 18 billion euros.

“Just as the steam engine and electricity did in the past, AI is transforming our world,” said Andrus Ansip, Vice-President of the European Commission, on Wednesday.

“Today, we are giving a boost to researchers so that they can develop the next generation of AI technologies and applications, and to companies, so that they can embrace and incorporate them.”

European countries such as France and Britain have also made AI investment a priority. French President Emmanuel Macron promised 1.5 billion euros of public money for AI in March.

The Commission said its 1.5 billion-euro investment ought to trigger an additional 2.5 billion euros from existing public-private partnerships, for example on big data and robotics.

To help stimulate investment the Commission also proposed legislation to open up more public sector data for re-use, such as the data held by transport authorities and utilities.

The tech industry welcomed the AI initiative while trade unions stressed the need to ensure AI develops in support of human beings rather than in place of them.

AI raises questions over the future of work as some types of jobs could be carried out more efficiently by machines.

“The European Commission is taking the right approach to AI,” said Liam Benham, Vice President Government and Regulatory Affairs at IBM.

“Their strategy is grounded in ethics and a commitment to responsibility, it avoids a premature push to regulate, and its focus on bringing together industry, government and academic expertise is essential in positioning Europe to help shape the AI future.” ($1 = 0.8209 euros) (Reporting by Julia Fioretti, Editing by Mark Heinrich)